Is there a reliable way to know when someone is restricting your Christian liberty?
The very nature of Christian liberty is such that you can’t really draw the line. Where the line is drawn is in the direct, specific, and explicit commands of God. The danger that we take things that are not actually commands, maybe general principles, and find an applicational rule, and we make that rule equal with God’s law.
God tells us not to be worldly. Some people determine that dancing is worldly, so they make dancing a sin. They make that application incumbent upon everybody else. Fundamentalism is characteristic of those kinds of things, so we have the familiar saying “Don’t drink or smoke or chew, or go with those that do.” Obviously, you don’t want to fall into that trap because that kind of genuine legalism does not build Christian maturity.
The way to build Christian maturity is not to pass a bunch of new rules that aren’t God’s rules but man’s rules. Rather, Christian maturity is to teach Christians to exercise judicial judgment in the way they exercise their own liberty. Give them principles and then leave them to themselves to decide for themselves. Often these rules by men end up taking precedence even over God’s rules. We make a rule: People in our church can’t drink alcohol. If you drink, you are sinning. Then somebody drinks and everybody judges him when the Bible does not explicitly say that we should not drink. It says we should not get drunk, but not that we shouldn’t drink. However, the Bible does explicitly say that we should not judge our Christian brother exercising his liberty, and no one should be our judge with regards to food or drink. That is explicit in the Scriptures.
People exalt man’s rules to the level of God’s law, and in so doing violate God’s explicit law.
When I was in Eastern European 20 years ago preparing to travel in the Soviet Union, one of the Christian leaders told me, “Don’t tell them that we are playing basketball today because the Russians believe that basketball is worldly. Sports are worldly and it is a sin. They don’t allow it.” That sounds bizarre to us because we love sports, but that is just their thing. It is an example of their particular rule at the time that they made equal with God’s law. They are very sensitive about it.
If you are going to adopt a rule that applies to all Christians, you ought to be able to identify an explicit Biblical prohibition.
I’ll tell you with regards to movies, I don’t look at the ratings, per se . I don’t automatically rule out R-rated movies. That’s me. I tend to be judicious with the movies I see, but I don’t simply ask the question of whether it is R-rated. Some people don’t go to R-rated movies as a matter of principle, and God bless them.
I’m sure Paul would say that sorcery, hatred, fornication, lewdness and those sorts of things mentioned in Galatians 5 are sinful. They were then, they are now. How that informs our behaviors and our particulars in life, I’m not sure. Keep in mind that even if Paul himself said, “I, for one, am not going to ever watch a TV show,” it wouldn’t mean that because he has chosen not to do so, that we are obliged not to do so either. Paul can still operate within the context of his own conscience, but that doesn’t mean that is a law for the rest of us. After all, Paul was the one who wrote about Christian liberty in Corinthians and Romans. Unless Paul himself said, “This is the direct teaching of the Lord. This isn’t my personal opinion or advice. This is God speaking,” I wouldn’t take that as incumbent on me. That’s a different story.
I’ll pass on something that one of my first Christian teachers passed on to me some 20 plus years ago. His name is Bill Counts. He’s a Pastor now in Dallas, Texas. Bill said this to avoid legalism: Find an explicit Biblical prohibition for every rule you adopt for the church. If you are going to adopt a rule that applies to all Christians, you ought to be able to identify an explicit Biblical prohibition. If you say, “The rule is Christians should not get drunk,” then you could page through to Ephesians 5 and read where it says, “Do not get drunk on wine.” There you have the rule. It is explicitly stated in the Bible so you are justified in applying that to all Christians because the Biblical writers have done that.
However, if you say, “The rule is that you should not ever smoke or take something that hurts your body,” then you are going to have to find a Biblical verse that says that it is immoral to take anything into your body that causes damage to your body. I don’t know of any moral verse like that. Some people might say that the Bible says your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. You’re right, but the body being a fit temple has nothing to do with the physical qualities of my body, because if that were the case then people who were exercising a lot would be more spiritual than those people who don’t because they have a better looking temple. And people who are sick and diseased would be less fit temples because their bodies are less attractive or are compromised by the disease. If it doesn’t seem to make any sense to say that sick people are less qualified because something is wrong with their physical body as a temple to the Holy Spirit, then it doesn’t seem to make any sense to say that you can’t smoke or drink because it might harm your body and invoke this verse about being a temple of the Holy Spirit either. It is interesting that people who want to do that about smoking or drinking don’t do that about calories or sugar or over-eating.
Paul isn’t talking about being physically fit in any way, shape or form. He is talking about moral behavior. He says, don’t go to bed with a prostitute. Why? Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. You are bringing God into participation since He dwells inside the temple of your body in the Person of the Holy Spirit. You are bringing Him into direct contact in an intimate way with immorality. You are joining Jesus to a harlot, Paul says. Paul’s comment about having a fit temple has nothing to do with physical qualities. It has everything to do with moral qualities. That’s the issue there.
To avoid legalism, make sure that you have an explicit Biblical prohibition for every rule you adopt for others.
This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show “Stand to Reason,” with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason. Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only. ©1996 Gregory Koukl